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Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.

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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.

Movie Review: The Band Wagon (1953)

Only in director Vincente Minnelli’s lavish and unique 1953 movie musical The Band Wagon, based on a stage musical and rewritten for the screen, does the audience get Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing to an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel within an adaptation choreographed by Michael Kidd, with a cast including Ava Gardner as herself, Julie Newmar in a ballet, pianist and composer Oscar Levant as Nanette Fabray’s husband, James Mitchell of All My Children and Oklahoma! and a character playing the Devil that’s based on Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac).

In The Band Wagon, all of this comes in addition to the world’s greatest dancer in motion pictures singing as an actor playing a baby triplet.

The Band Wagon is this blend of zany, colorful and over-the-top depictions of show business. Incidentally, it’s also where the song “That’s Entertainment”—which spawned three grand Hollywood documentaries and became the movie industry’s unofficial theme song, capturing the spirit of Hollywood’s Golden Age—originates. If The Band Wagon sounds rollicking, that’s because it is—and seeing it for the first time, as I recently did, with movie buffs who know all the lines and places to laugh (at TCM’s Classic Film Festival 2016) is somewhat disorienting—but, like the mid-century America the movie inextricably represents, The Band Wagon mixes everything to arrive at an original climax, point and theme.

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With screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Mr. Minnelli’s visual and musical flourish and nerve, producer Arthur Freed, who similarly peeked behind the scenes of early Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), depicts Broadway’s manic process to excess with everyone traipsing around singing, dancing, saying, proposing and doing ridiculous things in order to coax a fading movie star (enchanting Fred Astaire, as accessible and elegant as ever) and a ballerina (lovely Cyd Charisse in an acting, not merely dancing, role) to put on an opulent and preposterous stage show.

As the backers, visionaries and players get skewered, with an impossible and increasingly dubious show heading for disaster, everyone goes along on The Band Wagon to make the serious point that putting on a show, contrary to claims that the musical is unrealistic and frivolous, is an act of daring. Integration of singin’ and dancin’ with abstractions and themes poses a real risk to talented and sensitive artists and demanding investors.

This is the play as an enterprise. Fortunes, careers, lives, reputations and relationships may be staked on one, massive show in a grand production and it can fail and fail dismally.

So goes The Band Wagon, with neurotic characters Lily and Lester (Fabray and Levant), an easily bruised ballerina (Charisse), intense leading man (Astaire) and diva director whose name even sounds like an aspirant of the theeuh-tuh, Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who strives to stage a musical show based on Faust.

Like the opening’s blinding, shining silver Santa Fe railcars—the movie poster proclaims: “Get Aboard”—the movie barrels, bends and zips by with power, light and excitement. Fred Astaire’s legendary dance in “A Shine on Your Shoes” with a shoeshine vendor (the delightful and uncredited Leroy Daniels) in a train station sets an energetically nervy yet effortless pace and tone. With songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, including “Dancing in the Dark” and the stirring, all-American “That’s Entertainment”, the company keeps stopping, pausing and starting up the vehicle. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse give the play-within-a-play its tension, bringing the plot to a low boil in a grinding routine styled on Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters featuring his private detective Mike Hammer, “The Girl Hunt Ballet,” choreographed by Michael Kidd.

It’s a brilliant number.

All keeps running in constant motion and The Band Wagon skips and sputters with musicality, inviting sets, costumes, make up and eye-popping production numbers, from the first song and dance to the last. It’s hard not to notice the widespread influence of this MGM musical on Hollywood and the entertainment industry, from incarnations of Grease to versions of Batman and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. But the deliberately, brilliantly mixed musical The Band Wagon, balanced by the masterful Fred Astaire, who was underappreciated as an actor and singer, carries as its treasured cargo a gradual awakening of an older gentleman who chooses to reshape his whole life with a new act, taking everyone along for the ride.

Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! purports to depict Texas college life in 1980 and comes up with a high-brow version of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). In fact, if you love Animal House, you’re likely to love this, too. But writer and director Richard Linklater’s college raunchfest is merely in the same genre as that college raunchfest and the films that followed (i.e., Porky’s). A gauzy climax, if it is one, and postscript are afterthoughts in a college fraternity fantasy.

Everybody-Wants-Some-POSTEREverything is tediously contrived in Everybody Wants Some!! which depicts a college baseball team just before the semester starts. Jamming punk, disco, rock and country pop into one movie about 1980, Linklater (Boyhood) cleverly and not so cleverly implants audio and visual signposts here and there, leading the batch of hooligans into a disco, country and western bar and punk club. It’s a meandering, aimless slice of life, with the boys playing with titties and relentlessly hazing one another and doing so with the jaded dialogue of a post-9/11 snarky late night host. None of this looks, sounds or feels realistic, despite the tube socks and other period touches (and the scene in the poster never happens, either). People didn’t say “Sup, dude” and “I get it! I get it!” and constantly snap lines at one another like the cast of Modern Family in 1980. The whole film feels like a laugh-tracked sitcom.

None of this would matter if the movie were about something other than a few days in the purposeless lives of wasted college students. That they are baseball players is incidental, really, because these hedonistic students could have been part of any fraternity of conformists who binge drink, smoke pot and engage in mindless sex. Theirs became the way of life of many if not most college students—this could be 1990, 2000, 2020—and, if future archaeologists dig up the rubble of where we’re heading and wonder how Americans ever fell under the spell of a nationalist like Trump or socialists like Clinton or Sanders, this movie will help them understand that, after the late 1960s and widespread acceptance of mindlessness ala Animal House, the most educated citizens mentally checked out, went blank and worshipped nothing—anything—whatever’s on TV or going on—mistaking that for Nirvana.

The best scenes involve baseball. The team finally shows up for a practice at mid-point in the picture. You almost get excited that something interesting will happen on screen besides the boredom of watching everybody get stoned, laid or hazed. But even this part—unless you think that pointing out that men are competitive is profound—gets down to crude vulgarity and ends in another asinine hazing action. The women are like blowup dolls, all long-haired, pouty and sex-starved airheads whether in a punk, country or disco joint. The music is ripped off the charts and none of it’s organically integrated, including and especially a scene in which the jocks all rap together in a car, which feels as era-authentic as jocks breaking into a show tune. Seriously, I kept thinking that the truest insight in this movie is that 1980 ushered in an era in which people stopped bothering to think and just wanted to feel—no wonder Americans are dumbed down to the point of accepting Trump—and go blank. This movie deals almost exclusively in this type of roaming, vacant emotionalism.

The worst part is that it pretends not to. It plays this game of pretend to make a point that college is not about college and it’s OK to party ’til you puke because you end up magically becoming human. In two droning hours, it celebrates just going along with the herd, trivializes free choice and mainstreams mindlessness.

Everybody Wants Some!! and, I suspect, Linklater, desperately wants the audience to think it’s sending up raunchy college days, because it’s wrapped up by a happy ending. Here, too, I foresee a boring marriage that ends up with a pair of stoned conformists, bearing children who mindlessly attend college, mindlessly tune out and seek to get stoned, laid or hazed, wafting into national socialism, feeling the Bern or some other mindless bandwagon. Like their parents. Everybody Wants Some!! is intended to stoke nostalgia. But it might have been called Nobody Wants Anything!! No single character demonstrates want of any value.

Through the final scenes, this picture, like Knocked Up and The Hangover, amounts to a generic plea for collectivism, whether through leftism or conservatism: join the party, get high and magically conform. Or: get stoned, blank out and fit in. If blankness or sameness could be a movie—dramatizing pre-mob mentality with pretentiousness; the antithesis of 1980’s Breaking Away—this is it.

Movie Review: I Saw the Light

ISawtheLightPosterFlawed and fragmented, but also layered and hypnotically absorbing, I Saw the Light, a movie about a country singer-songwriter in the previous century, is one of the better pictures in this biographically-oriented genre. Like last year’s inspiring Steve Jobs, it is an essentialized dramatization of a man’s historic life, not a journalistic account. As such, it is an insightful and moving—also relevant—portrait of a musical genius.

Ranging over certain points in his short life—and I knew little about this artist going in—I Saw the Light starts in the heart of Dixie. The year is 1944 and the scrawny young singer, portrayed by Tom Hiddleston (Thor, War Horse) is getting married to an attractive woman named Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen). Writer and director Marc Abraham focuses on exploring, as against showcasing, the enigma of Hank Williams. So what you get is a darkened story driven by his choices, goals and songs, in simple terms with simple themes of alcohol, women and music. Unlike 2005’s worthwhile Walk the Line, a fine but overstylized movie about country legend Johnny Cash, I Saw the Light, also titled after one of the artist’s tunes, probes and ponders what lies beneath the beauty of Hank Williams’ simplicity.

Hiddleston as Williams is magnetic, though he is older than Williams as depicted and this fact is distracting. Other problems include a narrative device that doesn’t work and a distinct deficit of making certain themes explicit through exposition of the music, which I Saw the Light skimps on. As Audrey, Olsen is uneven and it’s through no fault of Abraham’s, because the role is rich and both cast and casting are good. Cherry Jones as his mother, David Krumholtz as a daring reporter and Wrenn Schmidt as one of his fixations stand out. But it is Hiddleston as Hank Williams who leads and charges the picture. Those eyes like deep pools plead in pain, charm and cajole and, ultimately, wearily and achingly, express a benevolent wish for happiness that make his one of the screen’s most intelligent performances.

The complications of being an artist—of being a man—of being alive come through in this opaque portrait. Whether he’s getting fired for drunkenness, struggling to hang on to his marriage or balance ownership of his work with partnership in his business or just trying to be left alone to write a song, Williams is as vulnerable, combustible and self-destructive as the best (Elvis, Michael Jackson and Whitney come to mind). Hank Williams on paper sounds like a real cad and, as shown in this adaptation of a biography by Colin Escott, et al., he can be cutting and cruel.

But in these years after the world went to war, before the nation integrated the races, neatly pocketed with Hank Williams’ ability to tell stories through poetry and song and make people believe in something—he distinguishes country music by its sincerity—in the places of the American South, one unassuming yet passionate writer emerges as a unique mid-century American idol. The voice twangs and howls and speaks in simple, rhyming lines about the hardness of living life. It made me want to know, understand and appreciate Hank Williams, whom it’s said influenced the best of postwar popular music.

For this reason, as simply as Hank Williams wrote and sang a tune, I Saw the Light seeps in, echoes and lingers. The movie shows and tells the story of a sincere and serious man whose short and troubled days on earth made an indelible impact. The best pictures about real people offer an essentialized part of the person’s life that makes you want to think about the whole of that individual life. This one does that with simplicity and universality so you end up thinking about your own life in whole, too.

Movie Review: Sing Street

SingStreet PosterJohn Carney’s spirited Sing Street is the perfect movie for right now. Writer and director Carney (Once), who wrote or co-wrote several songs in the picture, balances the bitter with the sweet on a small scale and lets the story achieve an idealistic purpose. This fact alone makes Sing Street a rare and welcome accomplishment.

Set in Dublin in 1985 at the height of Western civilization’s burst of rock romanticism known as the New Wave, Sing Street sweeps its main character, a young teen named Conor (newcomer Ferdio Walsh-Peelo), into the hopelessness of socialism in short, brisk strokes. At first, he strums music to deflect his parents’ marital tension. Music is a hobby to pass time between bouts. That a new incarnation of melodic, glamorous rock becomes to him and his older brother Brendan (excellent Jack Reynor) a shared symbol of what can and ought to be, in the form of a Duran Duran music video, centers the multilayered plot.

Due to financial strain, his parents send him to a dodgy Catholic school where thugs roam freely and priests merely manage Dublin’s male students. His father forewarns but forces him into the school, where a bully targets the fresh-faced kid and the principal seeks to make him conform as a moral duty to authority. Restless and coached by his worldly older brother, the kid looks for any means to break the line and muddle through. He finds Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on a stoop.

In a moment of bluster, he improvises to her that he’s a singer in a band, so she dares him to sing a line from the new hit song “Take on Me” by a-ha. He stumbles through, improvises again and winds up having to deliver some of what he’s promised. Enter an assembled band with a couple of talented musicians, a chubby kid, a geek with braces and one who likes rabbits. Before you can sing “don’t you wonder what we’ll find” from Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out”, out comes the gear, the cover tunes, the rehearsals, the outfits and, of course, a music video featuring the would-be glamour girl.

As the lad’s life gets complicated, he puts himself into the new enterprise and becomes a songwriter.

With skilled and appealing leads wrapped in Irish sweaters and fitted with witty lines, Carney’s and The Weinstein Company’s radically wholesome and romantic Sing Street breaks down the bone-crushing blows and heartbreaks of being poor, young and trapped in an unhappy family on a religious welfare island. With an old-fashioned spirit of putting on a show rooted in one’s problem-solving amid the prospect of a bleak future, Sing Street finds the good in three acts. Mixed with subtle digs at predatory authority figures, intelligently and marvelously developed characters, performances and scenes about making music from “the wreckage of family”, and learning to love who you see in the mirror, Carney weaves the harshness of life for “a kid, a girl and the future” into the optimism of 1980s’ pop culture.

This essentially American sense of life is rightly named, reclaimed and layered in the invigorating and reverentially idealistic Sing Street, with an adroit sense of melancholy from The Cure and a nod to Philadelphia bop with “Maneater” by Hall and Oates. There are plain and hidden insights about songwriting, friendship and brotherhood besides the awkward romance that develops between mysteriously damaged Raphina and wide-eyed Conor and some of it is so simple that it’s tempting to gloss over its playful abandon. The cast is outstanding. So is the music.

Unexpectedly, Sing Street is the antidote to the John Hughes movie (and I like those movies, particularly Some Kind of Wonderful). Those films often take place in the 80s while playing to themes that emanate from the 1960s or, at their best, the 1970s. Sing Street instead applies the exuberant ethos of the 1980s—with scenes of strangers dancing in public, as the Irish coastline goes by, and a boy’s delightful fantasy—to universal themes relevant in today’s hard economic reality. Like the better New Wave songs and indelible music videos, it cultivates an earnest theme that life can and should be as it is in music and pictures and lets it free as a badly needed burst of youthfulness and joy.

Sing Street opens in movie theaters on April 15.